Thursday, December 11, 2008

Food For Thought

I write to you today to ask for your consideration.

No I'm not up for an Academy Award.

I'm asking for your consideration of an issue near and dear to my heart. That issue is agricultural policy in the United States. 

Since Richard Nixon's administration, the United States has been manipulating farming through various incentives provided to both industrial and independent farmers.  While I'm all for efficiency and understand economies of scale, these incentives have both destroyed natural food systems and created problems far beyond edible industry. Energy policy, the health care system and even national security are all significantly worse off because of the various Farm Bills that have been passed in the last 40 years.

But don't take my word for it.

And definitely don't take his word for it...

Author Michael Pollan is leading the charge to change our hypocritical, wasteful and damaging policies with well-written, fun (and frightening) to read books about the state of the American food system. Whether you just read one of the articles below or check out The Omnivore's Dilemma (or one of his other books) in it's entirety, I promise that you will be a significantly more informed food citizen.  We eat (at least) three times a day, yet most fail to consider where exactly that food is coming from and what the consequences of our food choices are.  After exploring Mr. Pollan's writings, you will appreciate the impact of the choices that we make, every time we exchange money for food.

Your Reading List

The Omnivore's Dilemma - (Introduction and First Chapter)

The Futures of Food

Unhappy Meals

Farmer in Chief

After you've checked out this literature, I encourage you to sign this petition encouraging President-Elect Obama to appoint someone Pollan and other food luminaries support to the position of Secretary of Agriculture.

He Already Loves Arugula...

I wouldn't bother writing if I didn't think it was vitally important to both our nation's future and your very own taste buds.  

Thank you for your consideration.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Don't Try This At Home...

You probably shouldn't try it at a restaurant either.

A reporter for ABC has embarked on an important journalistic endeavor; to record for future generations a series of eating contest menu items at various restaurants around the country.

The pinnacle of human achievement

If you're in the mood for a 50 pound burger (that's 200 1/4 pounders for you non-math folk), a 76 ounce steak with all the trimmings or 21 scoops of ice cream with toppings galore, read on.

Don't say I didn't warn you...

Thanks to Mark for the tip.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Iron Chef - Bacon

After sampling a particularly delicious dish at Momofuku Ssam Bar featuring Benton's Bacon, I decided to see if I couldn't procure some of this superlative swine myself.  I checked out Mr. Allen Benton's website, and ordered myself four pounds of bacon and a pound of "Tennessee Proscuitto."  

The man and his hams

After a couple of shipping miscues (the UPS guy couldn't figure out what floor my company was on so he had it returned to Tennessee), and some e-mailing with Mr. Benton himself, I had the pungent, piggy product in my hands.  

Knowing how extraordinary this food was, I wanted to share it with my bacon loving friends and make it a truly memorable meal.  Thus, the idea for another iron chef challenge was born.  

One night, ten friends, five courses, all bacon.

For over two months I pondered what dishes would best show off the flavor and versatility of the Benton's bacon.  I solicited ideas from friends, poured over restaurant menus and scoured the Internet for recipes.

Finally I set the date, sent out the evite and started shopping.  Here's how it all went down:

For the first course, I served an amuse bouche brilliantly conceived by my friend Mark: Bacon Wrapped Bacon.

More than just a play on the simplicity of wrapping something in bacon to enhance its flavor, this amuse would be a warning shot, a bacon siren, that things were about to get heavy, in a good way.

To break up the monotony of so much Benton's bacon, I also bought a package of my favorite store supplied product, Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Bacon.  I cut each slice into thirds and made an equal armed cross out of one cut piece of each brand.  I alternated folding each slice back over the other, a bit of a bacon weave, until I ran out of bacon real estate and was left with what looks like a fat-streaked rose.  I put a wooden skewer through the middle to hold the creation's shape together and popped the 10 skewers in a 375 degree oven for 18 minutes.  When they emerged, they were crispy throughout and the excess fat had melted into a pool in the bottom of the grill pan that was my cooking vessel.  What was left was super crispy layers of phenomenally rich meat that really popped with flavor.  Everyone was moaning (from joy, I think) and palates were primed for the impending porcine party.  We also watched this video to get "in the mood."

Bacon, by any other name, would taste as sweet...

Thankfully these monsters were only one bite each as any more might have been asking for it.

Up next was a salad that I love making during the summer when peaches and nectarines are at their sweet peaks.  The dish consists of grilled peaches and/or nectarines, baby spinach leaves, crumbled candied pecans, dried cranberries, freshly cooked warm bacon bits and blue cheese dressing.  Without fresh peaches or nectarines at my disposal, I used a high quality jarred white peach that filled in decently well for its summer cousin.  This salad is always a hit and on this night, was a welcome bit of green in a dinner filled with heavier foods.

This course actually might have been healthy

For the third course, I had planned to cook up a batch of Bucati alla Amatriciana, my favorite Italian dish.  Consisting of diced red onion sauteed with pancetta, red chili flakes and tomato, it is a dish I serve quite often.  On this evening however, I didn't want to make a pasta as I feared noodles might fill my friends up with 2 courses yet to go.  Thus, I came up with the idea of turning this powerfully flavorful, yet simple sauce into a soup.  

To that end, I browned four slices of Benton's bacon over medium heat in my largest stock pot and removed them when they were cooked through.  To the melted fat which they left in their wake, I added three diced large red onions and a few pinches of red chili flakes and sauteed over medium-low heat.  After ten minutes, I dropped in two 35 oz. cans of San Marzano peeled tomatoes, sans the liquid they are canned with, and mashed them into the onions with a potato masher.  I popped the top on the pot, and let the mixture cook over low heat for 90 minutes.  

When the lid was removed, I returned the bacon to the party (after a rough chop) and let the mix simmer uncovered for another ten minutes.  After a little adjustment of seasoning with salt and pepper, the soup was ready to serve.  

I'm sorry Campbell's. but this was truly a soup that ate like a meal.  Hearty, warm, with a subversive kick from the chili flake, it was the kind of food I long for on a winter's evening.  The flavor was rich with bacon, but that richness was cut by the sweetness and acidity of the tomatoes and the natural sugar in the red onion.  It was my favorite creation of the evening and will be a staple for many NFL Sundays to come.

You're the inspiration... (sadly no one photographed the actual dish I made)

For our fourth plate of piggy goodness, I decided to have a little fun.  I wanted to showcase just how good this bacon was by offering it in very traditional ways.  To do that, I made a course I decided to call "Bacon All Day."  The plate consisted of three mini sandwiches, none of which was particularly novel.  I made a mini bacon egg and cheese biscuit, a hot peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich and a bacon cheeseburger slider that I augmented by adding bits of bacon inside the burger patty.

Three Little Pigs

These simple sandwiches were hopefully able to convey how different and delicious Allen Benton's bacon is than that typically consumed in these common sandwiches.  While I probably should have tried to go a little lighter (perhaps a BLT rather than the burger), I think the point was made.  Everyone had a different favorite, but all agreed that the star was shining brightly in its bacony glory.

For my last act, I took the suggestion of a good friend from high school who used to live in Los Angeles named Tristan.  In L.A., he told me, there was a restaurant famous for its bacon cheesecake, which consisted of of a layer of bacon slices set between the crust and cake on an otherwise standard cheesecake.

Being a lazy and poorly equipped baker, I ditched the idea to splurge for a spring-form pan and copy the cake to a T and decided instead to use the recipe as a jumping off point for my own creation.  

I purchased a frozen NY Style Cheesecake from Trader Joe's and let it sit out on the counter for four hours until the cake became malleable.  At that point, I sprinkled crumbled bits of extra crispy Niman Ranch Bacon (the Benton's is perhaps too flavorful for this application) and crushed honey graham crackers over the top of the cake.  I then kneaded the crumbs and crumbles into the cake until there were bits of both in every bite.  Next, I rolled the mixture into bite sized balls and stored them in the ice box until about 20 minutes before they were ready to serve, when I let them sit out on a counter to soften up.  My friends and I really enjoyed the classic mixture of sweet and salty, but it was my coworkers who were most impressed when I brought in left-overs to sample the following day.  Comments ranged from, it's not that bad to "it's almost better than sex."  I wish I were making this up.  I'm not.  

Now you can have your pudding while you eat your meat.

All in all, we went through about 60 slices of bacon that evening, each serving its own delicious purpose.  

Here's what bacon lover and attendee Victoria had to say:

"The meal was nothing but decadent and sinful.  Of course, I knew this going into it, so I prepared well with a pair of stretchy pants.  My favorites were the amuse bouche (bacon wrapped in bacon) and the bacon breakfast sandwich, which haunted me in my dreams last night. I think the high I was feeling from this meal caused me to say some lascivious things to Smith, so I'd like to make a public apology to my fiance."

Afterwards, I actually hurt all over. 

It was worth every last bite.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Recession Specials

If you haven't noticed, the economy is not doing so well.  One positive outcome of tough times tends to be unusual good deals, both in the stock market and in your super market.  

Restaurants have a particularly tough road ahead of them as dining out is one of the easiest forms of discretionary spending to curb.  To curb the curbing, many restaurants in New York are offering great deals to get you in the door.  Here's New York Magazine's list of some of New York City's best recession specials:

5 Ninth: $24 three-course lunch (one of the best dining deals in the meatpacking district).

21 Club: 3-course prix fixe menu at lunch for $35, and dinner $40 when seated by 6:30 p.m.

Abboccato: new selection of chiccetti (small plates for sharing); $26 three-course lunch on weekdays.

Allegretti: $28 three-course lunch.

Apiary: $35 three-course Sunday dinner, featuring options like pan-seared halibut with broccolini and spicy eggplant, and pumpkin crème brûlée.

Bacchus: $25 three-course dinner with plenty of options.

Bobo: Everything is $20 or less on the new den menu.

Café Loup: Nightly $28 three-course dinner.

Casa Havana: Recession Special breakfast includes two eggs, ham or bacon, French fries, toast, and coffee for twenty cents.

’Cesca: Half-price wine on Mondays; $31 three-course dinner before 6:30 on weekdays.

Chanterelle: Three-course lunch for $42, which includes tea or coffee and a tray of chocolate truffles.

Community Food & Juice: Burger and a beer for $15.

Craftsteak: The new bar menu features options like fried mac and cheese and crispy pork belly, all for $15 or less.

davidburke & donatella: $24.07 three-course lunch with shockingly luxurious dishes.

David Burke at Bloomingdale’s: $24.07 three-course dinner.

Demarchelier: Two-course dinner with wine for $26.

Dennis Foy: any appetizer and entrée for $27.

Dovetail: $38 three-course Sunday supper, featuring dishes like sweetbreads and duck goulash.

Eighty One: $42 two-course seasonal dinner all night on Sundays and from 5:15 to 6:15 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Eleven Madison Park: $38 two-course lunch; new à la carte bar menu.

The EU: All entrée prices have been reduced by approximately $10.

Fiamma: $50 three-course dinner from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.

Fleur De Sel: $29 three-course lunch.

Gotham Bar and Grill: $31 three-course lunch; options include grilled steak.

Gramercy Tavern: $14 soup and sandwich in the Tavern room at lunch, options include a lobster roll and borscht.

Grayz: $27 three-course lunch.

Japonais: The Restaurant Week menu is still being served from 5 to 7 p.m. every night.

Jean Georges: $28 two-course lunch, plus free marshmallows (possibly the best deal in town?).

Johnny Utah’s: $19.95 three-course lunch; two-for-one drinks at lunch.

JoJo: $24.07 three-course lunch; $35 three-course dinner before 6:30 p.m. and after 9:30 p.m.

La Bonne Soupe: $23.95 three-course lunch and dinner.

La Petite Auberge: Four-course dinner with coffee for $28.

Le Cirque: $45 three-course lunch in the dining room; $28 two-course lunch in the café.

Megu: $55 three-course dinner.

The Mermaid Inn: The menu includes new wallet-friendly items such as a lobster po' boy.

Mia Dona: $24.07 three-course lunch (don't miss the bigoli); happy hour from 5-7 p.m.; 25 percent discount on gift cards worth $100 or more.

The Modern: Every bottle of wine in the Bar Room is now $50 or less.

Momofuku Ssäm Bar: $28 three-course lunch, features favorites like pork buns and spicy rice cakes.

Nougatine: $24.07 three-course lunch.

The Orchard: BYOB with no corkage fees every Sunday night.

Ouest: $34 three-course dinner before 6:30 p.m.

Pamplona: $15.95 two-course lunch; $21.95 three-course lunch; more shareable, wallet-friendly items at dinner.

Payard: $31 three-course lunch; $37 three-course dinner before 6:45 p.m.

Perry St: $24 two-course lunch; $35 three-course dinner before 6:30 and after 10 p.m.

Persimmon: $37 tasting menu.

The Smith: $12 burger and beer every Sunday night.

South Gate: $24.07 three-course lunch.

SushiSamba: $35 three-course dinner.

Tabla: $27 Autumn-inspired three-course lunch; $35 chef's three-course lunch.

Tailor: Enlarged bar menu now includes items like chicken-liver pâté; Monday night special of huitlacoche corn dogs with a beer for $12.

Tempo: $32 three-course dinner Sunday through Thursday; lots of options.

Union Square Cafe: Recently added 100 new bottles of wine under $75.

Vero Panini & Wine Bar: On Monday nights, order a glass of wine or a beer at the bar and receive a free panini.

Vong: $24.07 three-course lunch.

Wafels & Dinges: The price of the WMD (the Waffle of Mass Deliciousness, which includes unlimited toppings) has dropped to $6.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Glory of Pumpkin Butter

To say that I’m a big Trader Joe’s fan would be an enormous understatement.

I shop there about twice a week, talk to friends and family about the wonders of their stores even more often and eat something procured from their shelves just about every day.

Of all the wonderful items they stock, there is one that I sing the praises of more often and more loudly than any other. That item is pumpkin butter.

Per Trader Joe’s flyer, “Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Butter doesn’t actually contain butter, but it does have a distinctively rich, butter-like consistency – partially attributable to its fruit pulp to sugar ratio, which is higher than that of jam or preserves.”

In other words, its creamy and rich, yet only contains 40 calories per serving (along with no fat, no cholesterol, no sodium, low sugar and a 1/5th of your daily vitamin A).

Besides consuming it straight out of the jar (which I do on occasion), I use pumpkin butter in a variety of conventional and unconventional ways to spruce up otherwise staid staples.

Just try to resist...

Some of the basic ways that pumpkin butter can be used include typical applications such as spread on toast, waffles or biscuits. The fruit flavor and thick texture elevate these everyday edibles into memorable breakfasts and snacks.

While I enjoy these standard uses immensely, what gets me really excited about this product is its versatility. Here are my three favorite ways I’ve used pumpkin butter to add something extraordinary to various dishes.

Pumpkin-Ginger Glazed Grilled Mahi-Mahi

A little bit of salt, pepper, and ground ginger rubbed on the mahi-mahi filet, a few minutes on the grill (or in a grill pan) and a dollop of pumpkin butter added on for the last 3 minutes of grilling to serve as a glaze, and you’ve got yourself a delicious and inventive sounding entrée with minimal effort. This combination also works great on grilled chicken breasts.

Right about now would be a good time to slather on some pumpkin butter

Pumpkin French Toast

As you made your mixture (eggs, vanilla, milk, salt, sugar) that you normally used to soak your bread in, toss in a tablespoon of pumpkin butter to add a little zing to the dish. A light spreading of pumpkin butter on the finished product also does that trick; double up if you dare…

Add it right to the batter

Pumpkin Sauce

After 30 seconds or so in the microwave, a pumpkin butter of lower viscosity will emerge and makes a great topping for vanilla ice cream, cheesecake, or your fingers.
Stir that microwaved pumpkin butter in with an equal volume of cream, and you’ve got yourself a pumpkin cream sauce that will marry wonderfully with the noodle of your choosing.

A photo of my pantry

I'm certain that there are many more ways to enjoy this fantastic product, and if you know of any, I'd love to hear about them.  

In the meantime, give these applications a shot.  I think you'll be quite happy with the results.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Howard's Salmon

I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to travel through Europe the summer after I graduated college.

I spent a couple weeks with my family in Italy, a month backpacking through London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Munich, Zurich, Barcelona and Paris with my close friend and his girlfriend and three weeks working at a sleep-away camp near Nantes in France.

My campers in Nantes

After the camp was over, I returned to Paris to live for a week at the house of my father’s best friend since childhood. That friend, Howard, had taken a similar post-graduation tour of Europe in the 1970’s. On that trip, he found a lovely woman in Paris, married her and never left.

While I could go on and on about the wonders of the food culture in France and the many simple culinary pleasures in which Parisians partake on a daily basis, I write today to discuss a recipe I learned not from any of the wonderful restaurants or pastry shops I patronized, but rather from the American living in Paris himself.

Come and get your love

The dish in question involves an incredibly popular fish, a highly underused kitchen appliance and perhaps the fewest number of ingredients and steps involved in any great recipe. Ever.

In contrast to the hundreds of types of mild, flaky, white fleshed fish swimming the world’s waterways, salmon are uniquely colored and flavored. Their bright pink flesh is bursting at the gills with natural oils that give the fish its famous flavor.

The broiler (that thing on the “ceiling” of your oven) is an often overlooked way of cooking that basically functions as an upside down grill. The heat descends directly from the flames and cooks the food sitting beneath it at a distance that can be controlled by the position of the oven rack.

In Howard’s Salmon recipe, the preparation is as follows:

Take a salmon fillet (preferably even in thickness), sprinkle kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper over the top and rub it into the flesh gently. That is all.

Salt, pepper and a little bit of love

Put the fillet on a baking sheet or in a cast iron pan (or anything that can take the direct heat) lined with aluminum foil and place your oven rack on the top level. Turn the broiler on the "high" setting and slide your pan underneath the flames so that the fillet is centered under the contraption, ideally about 4 inches from the flames.

4 inches from the broiler, give or take a few centimeters...

Next comes the most difficult step.

Watch it.

Just sit there, keeping your eye on the flesh, and watch the fish.

After about 5-7 minutes, the top of the fish will begin to brown. Turn the broiler to the “low” setting and wait until the top of the fish is a rich mahogany color. Right before its about to start burning, pull the fish out of the oven.

That’s it.

The natural oils in the fish rise to the top of the fillet as the heat rains down from the broiler. These oils interact with the flames and constructively fry the exterior of the salmon, giving it both a pleasantly crispy texture and rich flavor.

The oil also serves as a barrier to prevent the moisture from inside the fillet from escaping during the cooking process. The flesh will be tender and moist, yet cooked through perfectly to a medium done-ness.

Serve it immediately or park it in Tupperware to chill for up to three days before serving cold and you’ll enjoy some of the most simple, delicious salmon of your life.

When it's golden brown, its perfectly cooked

I like to serve the salmon with a homemade Dijon honey mustard dressing constructed as follows:

4 Tablespoons Hellman’s Mayonnaise (there’s no substitute for Hellman’s, trust me I’ve tried)
3 Tablespoons of any good Dijon mustard
2 Tablespoons of honey
½ Teaspoon (each) of garlic powder, chile powder (I prefer ancho, but any will do), curry powder, kosher salt, fresh ground pepper

Mix to combine.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Five Borough Challenge - The Wrap Up

The Five Borough Challenge lived up to it's name, lasting nearly ten hours and taking it's participants on a journey above and below ground, on the water and through all five New York City Boroughs. The quest was to consume a slice of pizza and a beer in each Borough. Here's what happened...

As Jerry Garcia once said, the first days are the hardest days. This was certainly the case in the challenge.

The Staten Island leg of the trip began with one of the participants missing his subway stop and exiting the train in Brooklyn. As he desperately wanted to complete the challenge, he took a cab from Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn to the Staten Island side of the Staten Island Ferry terminal in order to meet the crew. He arrived two minutes too late for us to make the Staten Island railroad 12:00 PM train (trains leave every 30 minutes) and $50 poorer from the long cab ride. We were off to a rough start.

With our group intact, we headed to our first destination, Goodfella's Pizza. After a Staten Island Railroad ride and a short walk, we arrived at the small restaurant that was nearly empty at lunch time on Sunday afternoon. We ordered up a round of brews and caught the opening moments of the Jets-Cardinals game as the young men manning the ovens prepared the pizza we had chosen. We elected to go with a pie that won the 2007 International Pizza Festival Championship, called the Smokin' Goodfella.

The Smokin' Goodfella

While I'm not prepared to say this is the best pizza in the world, I could certainly see why someone could be of that opinion. The smoked mozzarella was a revelation, adding a depth of flavor to the pizza that I have tasted no where else. The crust was very thin but still was able to hold on to the wonderfully sweet wood roasted peppers, pecorino-romano cheese and fresh basil. Do to a request from a Kosher member of our tribe, we ordered the pie sans sausage, but to be honest (and blasphemous as a meat lover), it wasn't really missed. This was one outstanding pie.

When we headed out of the restaurant, we noticed that a bus was coming up the street that we knew we could take to the Ferry Terminal. We sprinted two blocks to the bus stop and caught the bus as we caught our respective breaths. Feeling good about our hustle we talked about how delicious the Goodfella's pie was. When party member Craig went to grab his camera to show off his pizza photos, he realized that he had left the camera at the restaurant. The group disembarked the bus at the next stop and walked all the way back to the restaurant to retrieve the digital camera.

After our detour, we boarded another bus and headed back towards the Staten Island Ferry with hopes of catching the 2:00 PM boat. Our bus arrived at the terminal at 1:59 and we booked it towards the boat and hopped on the ferry moments before the mammoth ship departed.

Back on our home turf of Manhattan, we took the 4 train from Battery Park up to 125th Street to hit up Patsy's Pizza. Having spent a significant amount more time in Staten Island than we expected, we opted to get our slices from Patsy's take out stand next to the restaurant proper and our beers from a near-by bodega. The slices were a study in classic pizza making. Sweet San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and a perfectly charred crust mixed beautifully in each bite. A light drizzle falling from the darkened skies only enhanced the enjoyment of the piping hot pie. We were in and out in less than ten minutes, but I'll remember that excellent slice for a long, long time.

The Original, and Still One of the Best

From Patsy's we picked up the 6 train at 116th street and took it to the second to last stop in the Bronx, Buhre Ave. From there we make the 15 minute walk to Louie and Ernie's. Run by a family out of their house in the middle of a neighborhood, Louie and Ernie's is about as far from the big-box pretentious restaurants often found in New York as you can get. The casual surroundings belie the passion of the pizza making going on in this comfortable abode. As mentioned in the write-up, the family behind Louie and Ernie's grows their own herbs, hand-makes their own mozzarella and runs every aspect of the subterranean slice joint.

Jonas Broncks would be proud...

The pizza was piping hot and a perfect foil for the ice cold coronas with which they were consumed. The crust was crispy, the sauce sweet and the mozzarella creamy enough. Though I believe this was probably my least favorite slice of the excursion, it was still one of the great slices I've had in my time in New York. It's sort of like trying to pick your least favorite Beatles album. No matter which one you choose, you know you are disparaging greatness.

After hiking back to the 6 train and riding it to 59th Street, we switched to the R to take us out to the Broadway Station in Astoria. From there we make the quick walk to Sac's Place next to the Astoria Beer Garden. We enjoyed the intriguing mixture of fresh and processed mozzarella on the slices which gave the pies the flavor of fresh and the gooey-ness of shredded. The tomato sauce was not particularly flavorful, but the slice was propelled by its picture-perfect crust which was a model of flavor and texture. This was my #4 of the 5 slices, but again, that's certainly not to say it wasn't an excellent piece of pizza.

Crust Lust

From Sac's we hopped back on the R train and took it down to Union Square. From there we jumped on the L train that took us to our final destination, Brooklyn's Fornino. We rested our tired legs in the sit-down restaurant's rear garden where Fornino's staff grows many of the greens and herbs used in the dishes they serve.

We ordered "The Al Roker" which consisted of a marinara sauced delectable crust topped with fontina cheese, carmelized onions, sopressata, roasted red peppers and rosemary. Sopressata is similar to pepperoni, only spicier and less salty (and in my opinion, tastier). The elements were perfectly balanced with each of the ingredients packing massive flavor punches that nonetheless worked in harmony with the other not-so-subtle flavors in each slice. Though the comparison may not be fair given the judging criteria (i.e. I wasn't comparing margheritas to margheritas), this was my favorite slice of the day and a wonderful way to polish off a tiring, but highly rewarding adventure.

Just when you tbought the chance had passed, I always save the best for last.

Thanks to Aaron, Jeff, Craig, Mark, Victoria, Ali, Jay and Katherine for joining me in this sapid swing through the city's five boroughs.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Five Borough Challenge - Stop #5: Fornino in Brooklyn

Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, is known for its legendary steakhouse, its large Hasidic Jewish population and most recently, for having the world's highest number of hipsters per square foot.
How do you afford your rock n' roll lifestyle?

Since October 2004, Billyburg has also been known as a destination for some mighty fine pizza.  Fornino owner and chef Michael Ayoub is obsessive about his pies.  He is able to control his ingredients personally by growing fresh herbs and tomatoes in a nearby greenhouse.  In addition, Mr. Ayoub makes his own mozzarella each and every morning.

When his painstaking efforts to source perfect ingredients ends, the pizza making begins.  Fornino employs a gas-assisted wood burning oven to heat its pies and give them the slightly earthy flavor that only wood can bring.  

Fornino has three sections of its menu, Naples - First Generation, Italy - Second Generation, and Fornino - Third Generation.  

The first section's pizzas consist of the most basic ingredients: crust, cheese, tomato sauce and herbs.  The second brings classic Italian iterations including Quattro Stagoni, Quattro Formagi and Calabrese.  Finally, the Fornino section showcases pies of Ayoub's creation with toppings ranging from broccoli rabe to rock shrimp to mixed wild mushrooms to fingerling potatoes.

For a report on the taste of the classic pie, here's an excerpt from's review (a website that we basically owe our entire pizza tour to):

"Rare are the pizzas that have no flaws, but this may be one of them. The light buffalo mozzarella on our Margherita was dreamy, and the standard mozzarella wasn’t far behind. The sauce was bright and tasty with a perfect balance: not too spicy, not too tangy. Even the crust, the most difficult part to master, was superb: very thin, with no sag. The gas-assisted wood-fired oven produced a surprisingly respectable char on the crust, cooked evenly across both pies we ordered."

The Fornino Margherita

That's a pretty strong rave from a group of reviewers who really know their stuff.

And so you have it.  

The five destinations for the Five Borough Challenge.  If you are interested in joining us, please let me know by posting in the comments so that we can know to expect you at the Staten Island Ferry this Sunday morning.

Oh, and pray for good weather...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Five Borough Challenge - Stop #4: Sac's Place in Queens

As we all learned from Prince Akeem, Queens is an incredible place to find a bride.  It also happens to be a borough brimming with fantastic pizza places.

With a surfeit of pizza parlors to peruse, we hit the books to do a little research on what place might be the perfect stop on our cheese and sauce fueled journey.  A name that kept coming up over and over as a favorite of locals and critics alike was Sac's Place, located in the neighborhood of Astoria.

Sac's is short for Sacramone, as in Anthony Sacramone, the proprietor.  Mr. Sacramone obviously takes a lot of pride in his product, going so far as to grow his own oregano, basil and rosemary at his home in Pennsylvania, making mozzarella in-house, and shopping for all the vegetables used in the store himself.  As any pie constructor worth his salt does, Anthony also exclusively uses San Marzano tomatoes to make his pizza sauce.

No relation to these Sacramones, though Ginny does love a good slice...

What results from the marriage of high quality ingredients, a coal burning oven and Mr. Sacramone's pizza know-how is an extraordinarily balanced pie that hits all of the right notes.  I'll let Mr. Josh Ozersky, a favorite food writer of mine, tell what he thought of his Sac's Place pie: 

 "The telltale random crust bubbles and tiny black spots on the bottom tell the tale of coal heat, but it isn't until you bite into the slice that you get the coal effect. This isn't the thin, matzo-like crust, so delicate and austere, served at Coney Island's Totonno's or the thick, cake-like confection of Manhattan's Arturo's (to mention two of its coal-oven cousins). It's just thick enough to support the toppings, to avoid tip sag and to give a pleasing contrast between the crisp crust and the moist, sweet dough in the middle."

I can't believe I have to wait until Sunday for this...

Top that crust off with sweet tomato sauce, creamy fresh mozzarella and Sacramone grown fresh herbs, and you have yourself a pie worth trekking to Queens for.  No matter how far away you're from...

They don't make pizza like this in Zamunda (or at McDowell's)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Five Borough Challenge - Stop #3: Louie and Ernie's in the Bronx

The Bronx - Louie and Ernie's

Guest post by Turkel

With many of the city's largest Italian neighborhoods, it should come
as no surprise that the Bronx offers some of the city's best pizza.
Strangely, a simple Google search for "Bronx Pizza" generally features
hit results for a pizzeria located in San Diego, California.  No
disrespect to this restaurant, but I think one of the goals of our
challenge is to put NYC back on top, and leave the imitators further
down the list where they belong.

We're not in Manhattan anymore...

The location of the Bronx's Italian areas is not ideal for our
challenge, as many of these neighborhoods, such as Belmont and Morris
Park, are situated in the northern part of the borough.  Nevertheless,
we are determined to trek out to the neighborhood of Pelham Bay to
savor a Bronx Slice.  It won't be the easiest leg of our journey but
we think the rave reviews we hear about Louie and Ernie's Pizza make a
trip to the end of the 6 line easier to digest.

Getting close up and personal with this delicious celebrity

The pizzeria is located in the basement of a white frame house and
operated by the family that lives above it.  Creamy mozzarella and
grated cheese is served on a thin crust, producing regular pies that
are among the best in the city.  Louie and Ernie's is also praised for
its white ricotta slices and sausage pizza.  We have the feeling that
one bite of this slice will dispel any doubt that Bronx Pizza belongs
near the top of our list, as well as Google's.